The old men on stage looked 100% geezer...pants way above the belly button, velcro leather sneakers, varicose veins, and hair that had been bone white since the Reagan administration. But this was not story night at the nursing home, and these men, despite their withering physiques and cracked voices, were no forgotten has-beens talking about how they walked 10 miles to school in the snow. These 2 men were nothing less than living legends, and the energy in the small auditorium could have powered all of Yosemite valley for several seasons. The lights dimmed, the projector lit up, and the show began.
When Tom Frost, Royal Robbins, and Chuck Pratt first climbed the Salathe Wall in 1961, they solidified their place in history as badass mofos, and virtually defined a style of climbing that, simply put, was focused not only on getting to the top, but doing it in good form. The first ascent of "The Big Stone" had taken over a year of relentless work, with a mad focus on getting to the top that would define Warren Harding's climbing career. The ascent of the Salathe was completed in 9 days, and came to represent the vision which the undisputed "leader of the Golden Age," Royal Robbins, brought to attention. 50 years later, their 9 day climb is routinely fired off in less than 10 hours. But despite leaps in technology, information, and training, the daring and commitment which those 3 men brought to the climbing world remains an unquantifiable feat of greatness.
Tom Frost narrated the slide show, and just when you thought he had used his last breath to describe each crisp black and white picture to the audience, he would bark out "next slide" in restless old-man monotone. The young men managed to look handsome and confident in every photo. Their seemingly calm demeanors frozen in a time when bringing a camera up El Capitan was a cumbersome affair at best, and photos of such great importance were not drowned in a sea of one-click wonders on the Internet.
"We looked up to John Muir, because he knew when to say no," said Robbins. Its the no's that carried these men into old age. That steady sense of surrounding which allows talented athletes to develop into masters of stone. That’s why a cascade of respect flowed from the top climbers of the golden age, and the top climbers of today. It wasn't any of John Muir's specific accomplishments which Robbins admired, it was the mentality that drove the man.
The Q&A session began. "Do you think you could have gone faster with the gear we have today?" Tom frost fielded the questions unless they were specifically directed towards Robbins. "We didn't need any of your gear. Next Question." There you have it.
"I know that sometimes, when I need to get through a tough move or something, I resort to anger. Did you guys get angry, or were you always calm?" This question was directed towards Royal Robbins. Since Robbins could not hear very well, Frost would repeat most of the questions, and cue Robbins when he was expected to answer them. Robbins would then raise his right hand, palm out, as if to say, "Royal Robbins is about to speak, listen and you might learn something." "No," Robbins said, "we were always calm." Thunderous applause.
The room was awash with legends old and young. Names ripped from the pages of today's climbing magazines, and faces belonging to names which fill Yosemite guidebooks and cover its walls. So giant are these men, that it was a miracle people even fit in the space available. One of these giants was Allen Steck, who wore his trademark leather gnome hat. His 85-year old frame belying the deftness with which he once climbed.
"Back when men were men," was Frost's answer to one of the questions. An uproar of female voices followed, proclaiming, "well what about so and so!" Frost waved away the response, unapologetic, and said, "nope, it was just us men."
I raised my hand and asked both of them, "how'd you guys meet?" A pause, "you know, just fell in with the bad crowd," was Frost's reply...good enough for me.
"Is Alex Honnold in the audience?" asked Frost. No response. "I didn't think so, this would be too hard for him to get through." Roaring laughter and applause. The questions continued, and the energy never faded. Finally the man who had organized the show ended it by saying that it was time for Frost and Robbins to get some food.
As people shuffled out, I looked for Allen Steck. I wanted to ask him about his visionary expedition to The Cordillera Blanca in 1957. I wanted to know whether that gnarly range was more intimidating than the vertical unknown of Yosemite's walls. But he had slipped away, and so I was left to judge this point on my own. 3 days later i got the opportunity, when Logan and I went to climb the Steck-Salathe on The Sentinel, a wide climbing and chimney test-piece. I may never get to meet the man, but at least I can try to follow in his footsteps. After all, what better way to gain insight into a climber's passion than climb a route they pioneered?
Logan and I hiked up the steep slabs at the base of The Sentinel as early morning light glowed on its namesake wall. Somehow we were guided by the adventurous whims of a small man in a leather gnome hat...it was time for a little history lesson.
Stay tuned to Pullharder.org for more tales from The Yosemite Experience 2011.